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New documentary ‘The Pipe’ sheds light on Shell hell in Mayo

In an Irish era of government gone absolutely mad, The Pipe takes viewers into an altogether deeper circle of hell, as a community of hardworking people face up to the might of the Irish State, the oil giant, uniformed gardaí and hired goon squads from private security firms as they struggle to protect the town of Rossport and its surroundings.

By Brian Fitzpatrick

“Once you come into Erris, all law is suspended. Shell takes over the law.” – Pat ‘The Chief’ O’Donnell.

Ken Saro-Wiwa could have told Pat O’Donnell a thing or two about the wonders of the law according to Shell, before he was hanged in 1995 by Nigeria’s military government. The author and TV producer, as president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, led a nonviolent campaign against Shell and its cronies in the Nigerian government as they polluted his native Ogoniland in the Niger Delta.

When four chiefs on one side of a divide within the Ogoni movement were murdered in May 1994, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were accused of inciting youths to carry out the killings. All were found guilty and sentenced to hang, despite worldwide outrage. Many of the witnesses called to testify against the men later admitted that they had been bribed by the government to do so; a 2001 Greenpeace report indicated that some had even been offered jobs with Shell in order to secure their lies. In June 2009, though denying responsibility for the men’s deaths, Shell agreed to pay an out-of-court settlement of $15.5 million to the families of those executed.

Watching Risteard O’Domhnaill’s stunning new documentary The Pipe (screened on Wednesday by Ireland’s TG4 as An Píoba), one couldn’t help but think of what Saro- Wiwa would have made of the plight of the people of the Erris Peninsula, Co. Mayo as they have battled Shell’s endangerment of their on and off-shore livelihoods over the past 11 years. Filming key players in the struggle over four years, The Pipe premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh in the summer and has since won acclaim at film festivals worldwide.

Considering the people little more than an irritating afterthought, Shell are looking to fully exploit the Corrib Gas Field (a reserve of natural gas situated 80 km off the west coast of County Mayo) by pumping unrefined gas 9km inland through an inhabited area to a refinery. Work on the offshore section occurred in the summer of 2009, with work on the onshore pipeline set to begin shortly, after a recent Bord Pleanála ruling which approved the third proposed route to link a landfall at Glengad to a gas terminal at Bellinaboy.

In an Irish era of government gone absolutely mad, The Pipe takes viewers into an altogether deeper circle of hell, as a community of hardworking people face up to the might of the Irish State, the oil giant, uniformed gardaí and hired goon squads from private security firms as they struggle to protect the town of Rossport and its surroundings.

Horrendous scenes of locals being beaten by gardai will be nothing new to those who have followed the ins and outs of this saga, but viewers fresh to the Orwellian square-off will be shocked. For example, at one point a swimming protestor in a wetsuit is covered (apparently deliberately) with the seabed contents of a crane’s bucket, as Shell tears the local beach asunder to suit its piping needs, all the time protected by authorities.

Probably the two most high profile episodes to have arisen from the 11-year campaign against Shell include the jailing of the so-called Rossport Five, and the seafaring protests undertaken by local area fishermen, led by Pat ‘The Chief’ O’Donnell.

The Rossport Five: James Brendan Philbin, brothers Philip and Vincent McGrath, Willie Corduff and Micheál Ó Seighin, were jailed for three months in 2005 for contempt of court after they refused to obey a court injunction forbidding them to interfere with Shell’s work on their land.

In 2008 O’Donnell laid 800 crab pots along the intended path of the Shell vessel Solitaire, and heroically defended them under the shadow of the largest pipe-laying ship in the world. After being arrested, O’Donnell’s boat was eventually sunk by masked raiders – all because he had the audacity to break a “sea exclusion zone” imposed to protect Shell. He endured 158 days in prison for his troubles.

It is the latter tale which makes up the most dramatic part of the documentary, as O’Donnell squares up to the Garda water unit which arrives on the scene to ensure smooth passage for the oil company. In poignant scenes, with the hulking Solitaire looming over him like some sort of modern day Amistad, O’Donnell is seen to be on first name terms with the gardaí who arrive to arrest him. It’s a crushing reminder of how a government’s insistence that a corporate giant be accommodated for a paltry sum has torn a community apart.

Just how paltry is this sum which has seen the Irish government abandon its own?

Shell operates and holds a 45% stake in the Corrib Gas project, with Statoil holding 36.5% and Vermilion Energy 18.5%. Mathematicians among us will see that doesn’t leave much for the benefit of the Irish people. Although government figures put the value of the reserves at €420 billion, owing to deals made by the Haughey government, the people of Norway will see a great deal more of that than we will. Norway, you see, owns 67% of Statoil, which in turn holds 36.5% of the Corrib project. As part of what has been termed “The Great Oil and Gas Giveaway”, our public stake in the Corrib project amounts to a big fat whopping zero.

In 1987, Minister for Energy Ray Burke (since jailed for corruption) abolished all royalties on petroleum and natural gas extraction and removed Ireland’s right to participation, in what DickSpring labeled an act of “economic treason.” In 1992, then Minister for Finance Bertie Ahern reduced the tax rate for exploration companies from 50% to 25%. By 2009, Ireland’s was ranked the lowest government take on such resources in Western Europe.

On top of the paltry tax rates for this and other West Coast fields, Irish law even allows companies to export our gas rather than sell it to the Irish market. There is not even a requirement that any oil or gas found is landed in Ireland. In what it has called “an exciting opportunity for the petroleum industry”, our outgoing government has invited even more applications for similarly lucrative exploration licenses. The petroleum industry is, as you can imagine, suitably “excited”.

But the depressing economics aside, the tale of the activists from the co-called Shell to Sea movement and related groups such as Pobal Chill Chomáin is a human story which has finally been done justice by O’Domhnaill’s film. Among the locals featured are O’Donnell, the farmer Willie Corduff (one of the Rossport Five) and the firebrand Maura Harrington, a schoolteacher who at one stage goes on hunger strike as the Solitaire arrives in Broadhaven Bay. Corduff in particular displays a knowledge of his homeland and its wildlife which will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

It’s a tale of might against right, containing all of the classic divisions within resistance movements, brought on by the temptation of money and the clash of ideologies and varying levels of militancy. Tempers flare at local meetings, with some open to compromise and others, such as Harrington, insisting that “if you blink, they’ll put the boot in.” You get the strong sense that these are real people, and not the left-wing nutters which the Irish media has often portrayed them as.

They didn’t miraculously fall from Mars bent on toppling a benevolent oil giant for the sake of it. Rather, they stood up for themselves at a time in 2005 when 500 women had placed their names on a waiting list for $5,000 Hermes shopping bags at Dublin’s Brown Thomas. In short, they stood up for themselves when easy money was flowing and Ireland didn’t give a damn about their plight. They stood up for themselves outside Connacht football matches in the rain when those going to the games asked “Who are those lunatics with the banners?” They are you and they are me.

With planning now in the final stages, is there any hope for the people of Erris? Many of the activists such as Harrington have vowed to continue the fight, even though the project’s finality now seems a given. Yet, in spite of the Irish government’s absolute insistence that the situation cannot be remedied, the recent worldwide re-appropriation of reserves debunks this myth, which is repeated ad-nauseam in the hope that the Irish people will believe it.

In Russia in 2006 the State’s Gazprom wrested the largest integrated oil and gas field in the world, on SakhalinIsland, from Shell’s hands. Evo Morales has done it in Bolivia. Hugo Chavez has done it in Venezuela. In Ecuador in August, Rafael Correa’s government began renegotiating 33 foreign oil contracts following the passing of a law which gives Ecuador 100-percent ownership of its crude oil production whilst paying instead a tariff for services.

News just in: the government of a country can change the law of a country, and can decide which corporations operate within it. There is another way, and it’s not too late. It will however require the next Irish government to put people ahead of corporate interests, a concept a whole generation of us have yet to see in action.

In April 2007, Wille Corduff won the Goldman Environmental Prize. No Irish government representative was present. Previous winners include Ken Saro-Wiwa.

For more on The Pipe see thepipethefilm.com

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